The Heights of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu has very little in common with my home except its status as a tourist destination. Living in a tourist destination is funny. People come to see where I live in a big red bus. They find it new and fascinating, but for me it’s just my stomping grounds. Certainly, I can still appreciate the grandeur and beauty and complexity of the city I call home; it’s just weird to me that so many Japanese tourists find my friends and me interesting enough to take our photograph. This does not, however, prevent me from capitalizing on the presence of outsiders. When I was in sixth grade, my friends and I teamed up for a school social action project. We decided to have a bake sale for the African rainforest. My friend Catie lived near a tour bus stop in Greenwich Village, so we decided that the best place to set up would be right there on the sidewalk. Tourists, rather than seeing us as just another pain in the neck on the way to work as locals would, would see us as a prime opportunity to become part of the fabric of New York City. And then we would get money.

The modern human impulse toward capitalizing on tourism has often been an issue at Machu Picchu. By 2003, at least 400,000 visitors had made their way up to the secluded mountain ruin since a Yale man named Hiram Bingham brought it to the attention of the Western world in 1911 (Sacred Land Film Project). One can imagine that 8 years later that number has grown considerably. In that time, people have proposed the construction of countless ways to get there that would be more efficient than taking the four-day hike up the Inca trail (BBC). This would allow more tourists (and privately financed tour groups) to get there. These efforts have been rebuffed time and again by organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (or UNESCO). Their personal interest is in Machu Picchu as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  They have claimed it as such because of its history as a sacred site (UNESCO). Much of the controversy over increased tourism has been generated by the description of Machu Picchu by many as a contemporary sacred site.

There really isn’t a whole lot of information about what exactly Machu Picchu was used for during the Inca Empire. What we do know about the Machu Picchu of old is that it was a sacred city and an “astronomical observatory” (Places of Peace and Power). This is indicated by the presence of an Intihuatana stone.

Intihuatana (literally translated as “Hitching Post of the Sun”) are stones placed throughout Inca territory in shrines and are constructed in such a way that they produce no shadow on the equinoxes (Places of Peace and Power). They were the subjects of ceremonies that tied the sun so that it would not continue too far north or south on its journey through the heavens. According to legend, if a very sensitive person touches their head to one of these stones, their vision will be opened to the spirit world. When South America discovered the Spanish, the Spanish conquerors would travel from place to place and systematically destroy all the Intihuatana. The Inca believed that when these stones were broken, the spirits of the places they stood were either dead or gone. The stone at Machu Picchu survived because the Spanish couldn’t be bothered to go all the way up there. Additionally, the city of Machu Picchu was totally invisible from the ground. It was deserted. No white people knew it was there (Places of Peace and Power).

We know why people found Machu Picchu to be a sacred place back then. Why, then, do people now regard this tourist magnet as a sacred space? The Inca are long dead and the people who get the angriest are often not indigenous. Now, the rest of us have found Machu Picchu, and we all want a slice of the sacred. On a tourist blog website, it is described as “inspiring,” “amazing,” and “a good place to worship my astrology gods if I had lived here 500 years ago” (travbuddy). One blog entry tells me that it’s so excellent that “you have to experience it for yourself” and says nothing more about it. While these are all very compelling and original ways to describe the sacred, the tourist account that I find most interesting is that of Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet. As he is known generally for his poems with titles like “Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon,” his epic work “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” can seem to be something of a change of pace if you, like me, aren’t especially well-versed in his work. In his poem he turns Machu Picchu into a place where one can escape the oppressive mess of the industrialized world, experience love, sense the vastness of time and history, and see death, among other things. Stanza IX especially made me think about Machu Picchu as a sacred place to some who visit it. It describes the Intihuatana;

Coral of sunken time.

Rampart smoothed by fingers.

Rood struck by feathers.

Branching of mirrors, ground of tempests.

Thrones overturned by twining weeds.

Rule of the ravenous claw. (15-20)


This got me to thinking. Places that inspire feelings of connectedness in me are the ones where I can feel the passage of time and I can feel the ghosts of history. I went to China during my senior year of high school. We went to a part of the Great Wall that not many tourists visit because it is so steep and rickety. I felt inspired by nothing tangible to take off my shoes and walk up the wall barefoot and in silence. I felt like I was touching the past with my feet. I could feel the centuries of bored watchmen, playing mahjong or whatever bored soldiers played back then, or fantasizing about talking to a girl they met, or thinking of home. I could feel the blood of invaders and of watchmen, no longer bored and fearing for their lives, finally, with some excitement. I could feel the dreams of the people who built it.

This, I think, is why some modern people who have no blood connection to the people who revered the Intihuatana regard Machu Picchu as sacred. They come and they get a sense of something that expands beyond themselves: time. Whether this is a projected sense or not, they come to find a place where past and present can meet and shake hands and trade stories. As soon as the tourist industry encroaches on the tourist at Machu Picchu, there is a sense of that meeting point being broken. UNESCO, on the other hand, is incensed by the sheer mass of people climbing all over their testament to the genius of humanity. So many footsteps will erode the place. Anything that would bring more tourists is a general no-no (BBC).

What we have here is an interesting conflict because it is between people and the industry that their presence provokes. Tourists fighting tourism. I want to be here, but not if you get to be here too. I can understand people being annoyed by the presence of industry, but what I think is dangerous is the idea that people think that without industry, they are getting an “authentic” experience. Just because you got a cookie from me when you got off the tour bus, that doesn’t mean that you understand the reality of living in New York City. People visiting Machu Picchu who believe that their experience is “authentic” to the lives of Peruvians, or even the lives of Incan people, are mistaken. I certainly didn’t become Chinese just by hearing (or pretending I was hearing) the past of China. Sure you are having an authentic experience of touring Machu Picchu, and maybe you did feel the presence of time. Maybe you are changed. But you do not understand the reality of living there.




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